Do as I say, not as I do
“Let’s see what our friend Suba has to say about this subject: … ‘Memorize opening variations, endgame techniques, combinations, even whole games if you can, but not rules and dogma.’ This last sentence is a remarkably honest proposal! After all, it runs counter to the advice of just about every instructional book or magazine article out there! Haven’t you seen it time and again: ‘Don’t memorize openings; just learn the principles behind them’…’you shouldn’t be trying to learn by heart; understanding the ideas is what really counts’…’young players spend too much time learning openings, when they should be mastering the fundamental principles of the game’, and so forth?” – International Master John Watson in Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy
One of the most oft-repeated advice to beginners and intermediate players is to study the typical plans and ideas of their opening rather than to commit variations to memory. And yet, we have here a clear example of “do as I say not as I do”. Not only do the top players in the world have a lot of knowledge of concrete, specific variations – but so do many chess coaches, authors, club players, and certainly those young players who are advancing rapidly. Indeed just about every player, author, coach who says “don’t memorize variations” has memorized oddles of variations – and has lived to tell the story.
So what gives?
The truth lies somewhere in the middle
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. When studying the opening, our chief aim really is to absorb the essential tactics and strategies of our particular system. But on the other hand, we need to equip ourselves to avoid dangerous traps, to assimilate the theory and games which have been handed down to us throughout the ages, to be able to exploit the mistakes of our opponents quickly and proficiently, and to minimize our use of clock time so that we can spend it on the complicated problems offered by the middlegame and endgame.
Memorizing opening variations not only gives us concrete knowledge of a given opening – it is also an efficient method of absorbing the crucial ideas/strategies behind our openings.
Read that again!!
If you memorize opening lines properly (and I’ll discuss more on how to do this) you will not only gather some key lines which may be of use to you in the games, but you also absorb the spirit of the opening efficiently.
Memorization and understanding go hand in hand
If you have ever tried to memorize opening variations you'll quickly realize that in order to memorize a series of a moves you have to try to understand it. Even if only on a superficial level, you have to make some meaning out of the moves. This forces you to think carefully about the nature of the moves, why they're being played, and causes you to gradually absorb the key ideas in your opening.
I would challenge you right now to pick up a game in one of your favorite openings and commit it to memory. Do this by playing through the game once, then putting the game aside and trying to recreate as much of it as you can. Guess where you ran into trouble? The moves which didn't come naturally to you are precisely those moves which you understand the least. If you give special attention to those situations where you lacked clarity, and strive to understand the moves (you can use books, databases, coaches, engines, online chess forums/groups, your own reasoning to help you) you will be able to grasp the moves and memorize them more easily.
In a sense, memorizing opening variations has a "nuclear" effect because you are often memorizing important strategic and tactical devices and clearing up areas of mis-understanding. One of the best ways to see where your understanding is deficient is to try to commit and rehearse things from memory.
But what exactly should I memorize?
The good news is that you really don't have to commit billions of lines to memory. What you should focus on is identifying the most critical lines, most tactical lines, and most illustrative lines. (We'll review how to do all this in upcoming articles.)
Critical lines are those lines which are theoretically critical to the assessment of a variation. For example in most openings there is a well-established "main line" where much of the theoretical debate takes place. A lot of players enjoy such lines because both sides enjoy chances, and its helpful to know roughly how to get to these positions and how to play them.
Tactical lines refers to those lines which involve long forcing sequences and plenty of tricks and traps. These are the sorts of lines such players fear - some young kid sits down whips off 20 moves of theory and suddenly you're lost. This is an extremely rare occurence, but many openings have well-known traps and tactical lines which it can be helpful to know.
Illustrative lines are more subjective. Here I'm referring to lines which help to demonstrate the main ideas of the opening. They may involve thematic strategic and tactical devices. One great way to have such illustrations in mind is to memorize the opening and middlegame phase of well-annotated games played in your openings. The idea here is to have some rough plans committed to memory so that you can rely on them by analogy when you reach such positions during the game.
We've discussed a lot of important information about studying openings here. During the next article, we'll dive into more details. Until then, happy king hunting!